As if parenting weren’t already filled with surprises, parents with school-age kids quickly discover that they’re expected to do way more than just drop off their kids. No, no, no, you’ve got to bring snacks for everyone. Or be an in-class reader. Or be the coach or manage the fundraiser. If you’re not careful, volunteering with your kids’ school and activities can turn into a full-time job.
In fact, many of the programs and activities kids get involved in rely heavily on volunteers, from team sports to scouting, school fundraising and activities and church groups. Most of the activities kids participate in could not function without volunteers. So when you decided to join the ranks of parents who show up for their kids, know that you’re needed and treasured. And that you’re going to have to learn the allergies of every kid in the class. (Hint: Just get Oreos. Trust me.)
The good news is, parents are showing up. Parents of kids under 18 are more likely to volunteer than people without kids, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s 2015 Volunteering in America report. Volunteering, it seems, comes with the territory of being a parent.
But if you’re new to it, volunteering as a parent can be overwhelming. I’ve been volunteering as a parent for almost 15 years, and I still don’t always know what I’m doing. The trick at the beginning is to take it slowly. Here are some things to look out for when you’re just getting started.
- You’re going to go through a criminal background check. If you’re handling money, you may also go through a credit check. In most cases, you will not have to pay to have this done. For people with no criminal history, the background check should only take a couple of days. If you do have a criminal history, you may be contacted by the school or program for further information. It’s standard operating procedure for everyone.
- Don’t take on the big projects yet. If you’re new to volunteering, start with something like signing up to bring the snacks (which, trust me, is a challenge in itself — no dairy, no nuts, no sugar, probably best to steer clear of berries, gluten-free, preferably vegan and does not need refrigeration… see Oreo suggestion above) and leave chairing the school carnival to a more seasoned parent-volunteer. If you sign up for more than you can handle, make sure to ask for help right away. Don’t let the school’s biggest fundraising event slip away from you.
- Ask for help. If you’re not sure what kind of snack to bring or how to make a certain craft or what it really means to run the cookie sales, ask! No one will ever think less of you for wanting to do your job better, and you will most likely find that everyone else was wondering the same thing. New parent volunteers come in groups, so usually everyone else is winging it, too. A teacher or a more seasoned volunteer can also be a big help.
- Yes, search the Internet for ideas but don’t take Pinterest too seriously. Whether you’re looking for soccer drills for 5-year-olds or craft ideas for the Valentine’s party, the Internet is chock-full of inspiration. But sites like Pinterest can put a lot of pressure on you to make everything perfect. Do not fall for it! Aim for a project you can accomplish easily in the amount of time you have.
- Do take the volunteer job seriously. Kids, teachers, and often other parents are relying on you to fulfill the job you signed up to do. When you don’t show up, you waste other families’ time and money, not to mention you disappoint a lot of kids.
- The bigger the job, the bigger the rewards. You’ll get a thank-you for bringing the paper plates to the class party, but when you grow as a volunteer and take on more demanding roles — especially one where you’re working with kids directly — the thank-you’s won’t be as meaningful as observing the impact you’ll have on the kids. Every time I’ve volunteered as a troop leader, coach, teacher, or some other overwhelming, demanding volunteer role, the best part has been seeing a positive change happen with the kids. In fact, I could these among some of the best moments of my life.
- Volunteering is not a competition. Unfortunately, it’s so easy for parents to try to outdo each other, and we all fall prey to competition. Remember that kids are watching, and you do not want to role model over-competitiveness, belittling others, or other bad behavior that can sometimes happen when parents go too far.
The most important thing about volunteering as a parent is to keep it in check. It’s too easy for everyone else to rely on you to be that one parent who always signs up. Don’t fall into this trap. Leave room for other parents to step up and make sure to take care of yourself and your family first.